Independent MP Andrew Wilkie: 'Bring our troops home' from Afghanistan

October 20, 2010
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie.

The second MP to speak in the House of Representatives debate on Australian military intervention in Afghanistan – a debate held nine years after the intervention began – was the newly elected independent Member for Denison (Tasmania) Andrew Wilkie.

Wilkie, a former military officer and intelligence analyst was a whistleblower on the illegal US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He declared in his October 20 speech in Parliament that he remained "a strong supporter of the Australian Defence Force" and, on balance, "pro-US", he was also a "vocal critic of the war in Afghanistan and believe we must bring our combat troops home as soon as possible".

Green Left Weekly does not support Wilkie's views on the character of the Australian armed forces or the US-Australia military alliance (which is an war alliance of imperial intervention to protect the interests of the world's rich, exploiter nations). However, we publish Wilkie's speech, in full, below because of its significance as one of the few calls for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in a parliament that is grossly unrepresentative of public opinion on this issue.

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Mr Speaker, I’m a Duntroon graduate and former Army Lieutenant Colonel. For a time I served as a senior intelligence analyst. I believe in just war and supported the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan on the grounds that al Qaida was involved in the 9/11 terror attacks, and so significantly intertwined with the Taliban that any effective US response warranted regime change in Kabul.

Unsurprisingly I’m a strong supporter of the Australian Defence Force, and have been as saddened as anyone that it’s my old battalion – the Sixth, based at Enoggera in Brisbane – which has lately borne the brunt of casualties in Afghanistan.

I was a platoon commander, the adjutant and then a company commander in 6 RAR and understand well the difficulty of the job our soldiers are doing in our name.

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On balance I’m also pro-US. The United States and Australia are natural allies on account of our common histories, cultures, values and strategic security interests. The US-Australia bilateral relationship is understandably one of Australia’s most important and I can understand Prime Minister John Howard’s decision to invoke the ANZUS alliance after 9/11. When the US is in strife it is right that we should come to its aid, as in fact we should try and help any country so long as doing so is within our means and consistent with our national interests.

But, despite all this, I’m a vocal critic of the war in Afghanistan and believe we must bring our combat troops home as soon as possible. And when I say as soon as possible, I envisage a withdrawal timeline carefully planned by military professionals, not politicians, which speedily hands military responsibility over to Afghan security forces in a matter of months.

Yesterday the Prime Minister was talking about us still waging war in Afghanistan in ten years time. That was an extraordinary admission of the difficulties we’ve gone and got ourselves in to and entirely inconsistent with our national interest. If it was up to me, I’d be very concerned with any military plan that still had us fighting in Afghanistan in 10 months time, let alone 10 years.

Mr Speaker, in 2001 Afghanistan was a launching pad for Islamic extremism. But now the country is irrelevant in that regard because Islamic extremism has morphed into a global network not dependent on any one country.

Yes, countries like Pakistan are incubators for terrorists. But so are countries like Australia, Indonesia, the United Kingdom and United States which now grow their own terrorists. And this is a much more worrying situation because it enlarges the threat and buries it deep within us where it’s even harder for the security services to detect.

In 2001 Osama bin Laden was thought to be in Afghanistan. But now no one knows where he, is or even if he’s alive or dead. Not that it matters anymore, because his ideas have taken hold and grown strong globally.

In 2001 al Qaida was the world’s pre-eminent Islamic terrorist organisation. But now al Qaida, like bin Laden, is much less important because it has spawned off-shoots directly and inspired other terror groups to crystallise.

The misguided response to 9/11, not the least of which was the failure to finish the job in Afghanistan when we had the chance in 2002, followed by the outrageous invasion of Iraq in 2003, has resulted in a significant baseline number of would-be Islamic terrorists and a global network of small terrorist clusters.

In other words, Afghanistan is no longer relevant to Australia’s security in the way it was in 2001 and the continued Government and Coalition insistence that we must stay in Afghanistan to protect Australia from terrorists is deliberately misleading – a great lie which, in recent Australian history, is second only to the gross Government dishonesty over Australia’s decision to join in the invasion of Iraq.

Mind you just yesterday there was no shortage of misleading statements in this place regarding our military commitment in Afghanistan. Both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader laid it on thick with 9/11, the Bali bombings and the attacks on our Embassy in Jakarta.

Yes, a token effort was made to distance these shocking events from our current role in Afghanistan, but the way they were recounted achieved the speakers’ aim of forming associations in people’s minds and steering listeners towards the conclusion that the terrorist attacks of years ago are as relevant today to our mission in Afghanistan as they were then.

If there is in fact any relevance of Afghanistan to terrorism and Australian security nowadays, then it’s the way in which the ongoing war continues to enrage disaffected Muslims around the world.

Just last week, the Victorian Supreme Court heard that that one of the men allegedly plotting to stage an attack at Holsworthy Army Barracks in Sydney was angry at Australia’s ongoing presence in Afghanistan.

According to media reports, one Wissam Fattal discussed a trip by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Germany to hold discussions about the war and was overheard to say ‘it was shameful that Australian troops killed innocent people.’

Mr Speaker, if the Government and Coalition are going to continue to argue for years’ more fighting in Afghanistan, and deaths, then you need to start being honest with the Australian community. Ditch the dishonest terrorism rhetoric and try and sell the real reasons for our seemingly open-ended involvement in a war that has gone from bad to worse over nine years, making it one of the longest wars in Australian history. Only the 13 years of the Malayan Emergency and the 10 year’s service of the Australian Army Training Team in Vietnam surpass it.

The reality is that the main reason we’re in Afghanistan is to support the United States, and by that support to enhance the likelihood of the US coming to our aid in the event Australia’s security is one day threatened. Such a reason for staying in Afghanistan has appeal to a not insignificant number of Australians.

Problem is, it’s a misplaced appeal because the reality of foreign policy remains that alliances last only so long as interests overlap. So US support for Australia at some point in the future will depend on our usefulness to Washington at that exact point in time. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other supposed down-payments on our American insurance policy will not, in themselves, necessarily amount to anything.

Turning this point around is the reality that Australia is, and will remain, as important to United States’ strategic interests as the US is to ours. Our location, political and social stability and inherent security, in part because of our air-sea gap and inhospitable frontiers, combine to ensure this is one piece of real estate the US will continue to be prepared to shed blood over.

Some commentators see in New Zealand a demonstration of the perils of saying ‘no’ to America. But the reality is that Prime Minister David Lange’s decision in 1984 to deny US nuclear ship visits did not unplug Wellington from US security arrangements for the simple reason of the continuing need for America to access the material collected by at least the Waihopai signals intelligence ground station located on the North Island.

In other words, the bilateral New Zealand-United States security arrangement did continue, albeit in another form, because the security needs of the two countries continued to overlap. And all the theatre about New Zealand being completely cut adrift by the US was just that, political theatre for public consumption mainly in America.

So too Australia could continue to rely on United States’ security guarantees even if we pulled out of Afghanistan, because we’re simply too important to the US’s own security for them to do otherwise. In fact we’d almost certainly be at less risk of being taken for granted in Washington if sometimes we just said ‘no’.

All of which, Mr Speaker, leaves ordinary Afghans as pawns in the strategic game we continue to play out with the United States. Yes, the Afghans in our area of operations have often benefited from the good work of our soldiers and the Prime Minister’s speech on the war yesterday was a fitting reminder of the local achievements of our soldiers.

But let’s not kid ourselves. After nine years of war and billions of dollars in foreign aid, a third of a million Afghans are still displaced within that country’s borders, while 10 times that number eek out an existence as refugees, mainly in Iran and Pakistan. Moreover the central government still fails to exert much control outside Kabul and the Taliban’s strength is put in the tens of thousands and growing, even though foreign force numbers have now maxed out at well over 100,000.

I remember well my visit to north-east Iran some years ago where I met with some of the Afghan refugees accommodated at one of refugee camps on the border there. There were thousands in the camp, and even though the conditions were relatively good thanks to Iranian Government efforts, the looks in the faces of many of the refugees, including the children, was the stuff of nightmares. Such experiences help explain my compassion for asylum seekers to this day.

Australia’s achievements in Afghanistan are eerily similar to the way in which Australia achieved tremendous results in Phuoc Tuy province in South Vietnam between 1965 and 1972, only to see those achievements eventually steamrolled by the broader Vietnam War debacle. In other words, it doesn’t matter how well we do in Uruzgan Province because ultimately Afghanistan’s fate is being decided elsewhere.

Mr Speaker, another alarming similarity between Afghanistan and Vietnam is how these wars were, or are, propping up deeply corrupt regimes. And this matters.

There have now been two elections in Afghanistan in the space of 14 months and both have been widely ridiculed for intimidation and fraud on scales completely discrediting the outcomes. And at the end of the day this is the government our soldiers are propping up and dying for. And I find that totally unacceptable, and something the Government still needs to properly explain.

No wonder Australian public support for the war and our involvement in it are at such low levels, as evidenced by a poll in June by Essential Research which showed nearly two-thirds of people want the Government to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Only seven per cent thought the number of troops should be increased. Also this year research by the esteemed Lowy Institute put at 54 per cent the number of people polled who felt that Australia should not continue to be involved in Afghanistan militarily.

Very few Members might be unambiguously speaking out against the war here. But standing behind those of us who do are the millions of Australians who are concerned with the ongoing war in Afghanistan and feel strongly that it’s time to bring the troops home. Every one in this place needs to understand that while the number of members speaking against the war in this place is small, the number of people out there concerned about it is huge.

In other words numerous Members are prepared to sit there behind your party’s policy at the expense of genuinely representing the views of your constituents. And that is a shocking break-down of democracy. Some things should be above party discipline and this is one of them. Whatever happened to some of you that now you’re so ready to sacrifice your soul for your party’s political self-interest?

Those of you who’ve travelled to Afghanistan to visit our soldiers I also acknowledge. But please understand you’ve experienced an intoxicating experience more likely to entertain than deeply inform the sort of strategic-level analysis and decision-making needed more than ever in this place.

The views of our enthusiastic diggers and operational-level commanders are obviously important, but they’re only one perspective when it comes to understanding Australia’s strategic interests and the most sensible way to achieve them. That most of our soldiers are keen to stay in Afghanistan doesn’t necessarily make staying there the right thing to do.

Mr Speaker, one argument for staying in Afghanistan is the need to stabilise Pakistan. But this notion is baseless because one of the main reasons Pakistan has become increasingly unstable since 2001 has been Islamabad’s support for the war. Moreover one of the reasons the north-west frontier has become so much more problematic has been the flow of militants across the border. Pulling out of Afghanistan will help rather than hinder Pakistan.

This is something I saw first-hand in 2002 when I visited the Protestant church in the diplomatic enclave in Islamabad which had, only days before, been attacked by terrorists. The grenade attack, which killed five including the wife of an American diplomat, is a sobering reminder of the dangers faced by our own diplomats overseas, especially in the many countries with heightened levels of Islamic extremism.

Mr Speaker, the difficulties we face in Afghanistan, especially coming as they do so soon after the Iraq debacle, throw into question how the decision to wage war is made in Australia. That currently such decisions can be, and are, made by the Prime Minister acting virtually alone is patently inadequate and potentially disastrous. It’s hostage to the competency of an individual with all his or her strengths and weaknesses, ideology and prejudices. There’s no mandatory gross-error check, neither at the outset nor later on.

This Parliamentary debate is a case in point. That we’re having it is good, but that we’re having it all is only because of the extraordinary 2010 Federal election result and the pressure brought to bear on the new Government by a small number of agitators experiencing extra ordinary political influence.

There is a real need for a public and political discussion about this matter because the current war powers arrangement is indefensible. Perhaps, for example, Section 51 of the Constitution, Legislative Powers of the Parliament, could be amended to include ‘to declare war or make treaties of peace with foreign powers.’ One option I favour is that the decision to go to war should be made by a conscience vote in a joint sitting of the Parliament.

Mr Speaker the international community, including Australia, confronts a dreadful dilemma in Afghanistan. On the one hand it could walk away from the seemingly inevitable disaster that would unfold. Or it can stay and fight, as it plans to, in the hope of somehow avoiding a different but equally inevitable disaster.

Success will not be measured by capturing the capital – we did that nine years ago and in any case civil wars are rarely won that way. No, success will be measured by some sort of consensus among the Afghan community. And that will not be possible until there is a political solution underpinned by an agreement between all the major political groups. In other words, there can be no enduring relative peace in Afghanistan without first negotiating with the Taliban.

The Prime Minister said yesterday she believes Australia has the right strategy in Afghanistan. She is wrong, dangerously wrong.

The reality is that the best plan the Australian Government can come up with so far is simply to continue to support whatever the US Government comes up with. And that alone is no plan - it’s just reinforcing failure.

The only way to turn Afghanistan around now is to hastily rebuild the governance, infrastructure, services and jobs which give people hope and underpin long-term peace.

But this appears increasingly unachievable because the foreign troops which anchor such a solution are now seen by many Afghans as the problem. They’re prompting a nationalist backlash which is sometimes coalescing around Taliban elements

That is our dilemma. On one hand there’s an argument for keeping our combat troops in Afghanistan, but on the other hand we must pull them out. There is no good solution. Whatever we do from here there will be violence and people will die. There is no avoiding that.

The only certainty is that Afghanistan will never face the possibility of enduring peace unless it’s allowed to find its natural political level. And that can not happen while the Afghans regard themselves as being occupied by foreign powers propping up an illegitimate puppet central government.

In closing I reiterate my support for our soldiers on active service, especially in Afghanistan. Vale Andrew Russell, David Pearce, Matthew Locke, Luke Worsley, Jason Marks, Sean McCarthy, Michael Fussell, Gregory Michael Sher, Mathew Hopkins, Brett Till, Benjamin Ranaudo, Jacob Moerland, Darren Smith, Scott Palmer, Timothy Aplin, Benjamin Chuck, Nathan Bewes, Jason Brown, Grant Kirby, Thomas Dale and Jared MacKinney. You died serving your country and I salute you. May you rest in peace. And may my new colleagues in this place see the sense in ending this operation now before too many more young Australians are sent to their deaths.

Thank you Mr Speaker.

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